Trail moves historic treat into public view

First Posted: 3/3/2015

Sonkers have been around for a long time. Martha Washington even had one in her cookbook attributed to her Irish cook. Surry County Historical Society’s book of sonker recipes explains on its first page, “which had to mean, in those days, a “Scotch-Irish cook.” Since northwest North Carolina was heavily settled by Ulster Scots, formerly called “Scotch Irish,” it’s hard to say if sonkers flowed to or from tidewater Virginia.

Sonkers, like cobblers, grunts, bettys, slumps and crumbles are one of the many simple desserts that contain cooked fruit and some kind of bread, pastry or grain.

The lines are blurred though as just what constitutes what in this particular group of desserts. What makes a sonker a sonker? There are as many different answers as there are sonker makers but almost everyone agrees that a sonker is juicier and deeper than a cobbler. Sonker can have pie dough, biscuits or a batter. So can cobblers. Either can be baked or cooked on the stove top with dumplings, which in Massachusetts would make them a grunt, or a slump somewhere else. It gets confusing.

All of these desserts are somewhat regional but none are so tightly bound to its place of origin as the sonker.

The Surry Sonker Trail website says that even the New York Times states that “The dessert is baked nowhere else in the nation.” And in fact, Kim Severson wrote in a July 1, 2013 story in the Times that sonkers are “specific to Surry County, N.C.”

Grandmothers and traditional cooks in surrounding counties, particularly Wilkes and Yadkin, might beg to differ with the New York Times. Yadkin is explained since it was originally part of Surry but Wilkes is more problematic. “Our State Magazine” actually includes Wilkes County as part of sonker territory.

Jessica Johnson, general manager at the Mount Airy Visitors Center, explains that Surry County is unique as it is the only place where sonker can be found on restaurant menus. That is a new development. Sonkers have always been home cooking, found more often at a farmhouse dinner or a church social than on a restaurant menu.

The Surry Sonker Trail, established in early January, is working to change that by leading visitors to eight places that serve sonker all over the county; Miss Angel’s Heavenly Pies, Trio Restaurant and Old North State Winery, all in Mount Airy; Putters Patio & Grill at Shelton Vineyards and Rockford General Store in Dobson; The Living Room Coffeehouse & Winebar in Pilot Mountain and Heaven’s Scent and Roxxi and Lulu’s Bakery in Elkin.

The two Elkin restaurants are using old family recipes, Trio has developed a more upscale version of the classic and Miss Angel’s has completely reinvented the sonker with the addition of a moonshine glaze that replaces the traditional “dip” and is called a “zonka.”

The Surry Sonker Trail is North Carolina’s newest culinary trail but not its only one. Others focus on everything from cheese, barbecue, wine, beer and even Moravian cookies. Other states are even more thoroughly linked by trails. The entire state of Delaware is linked on its culinary trail and Louisiana has a number of trails that cover the whole state.

Culinary tourism is big business. Johnson reports that visitors to Surry County spend more money on food than any other thing, including accommodations. She says that at least 90 percent of visitors to the Mount Airy Visitor’s Center are looking not only for locally owned restaurants but local specialties, things that they can get nowhere else. Along with ground steak and pork chop sandwiches, sonkers are high on the list of what culinary tourists are after, that sense of place that the French call “terroir.”

“So this Hail Mary for dying fruit,” as it’s called by Amanda Hesser, a former New York Times food writer who created the Food 52 Web site, has moved out of the farmhouse kitchen and is now expected to help kick start the local economy.

Surry County residents as well as tourists can now get sonkers whenever they eat out and binge once a year at the Sonker Festival but for folks who want to take sonker back to its roots and serve it at home or make one for a potluck or church supper, here are some authentic, traditional recipes published by the Surry Historical Society in their sonker cookbook first printed in 1980.

Sweet Potato Roll Sonker

Mrs. C.L. Eads — Mount Airy

4 medium sweet sweet potatoes

1 1/2 cup flour

1/2 cup Crisco

1/2 tsp. salt

1 tbsp. vinegar

5-6 tbsp. water

1 quart milk

2 tbsp. vanilla

1 stick margarine

1 1/2 cup sugar

Boil sweet potatoes until tender; peel, mash or break into small pieces. Prepare pastry, using the next 5 ingredients. Roll out pastry approximately 3 x 3 inches. Place 2 tbsp. potatoes on pastry. Roll up into roll. Place on greased baking sheet, back at 400°F. 12-15 minutes or until brown. While potato rolls bake, mix last 4 ingredients and bring to a boil. (Do not boil.) Break rolls into pieces, placing in two quart casserole dish, pour milk mixture over rolls, let set a few minutes. If sonker becomes too dry, mix more milk mixture and pour over.

Pie Plant Sonker (Pie plant is known as rhubarb today.)

Eva Wilmoth

Nola Brown

Salem Fork Extension Homemakers

3 heaping cups rhubarb 9cut in 1/2 inch pieces)

3 cups water

1 1/2 cups sugar

3 tbsp. butter

Make crust of biscuit dough. Roll thin and line bottom and sides of 12 x 8 x 2 inch baking dish. Add rhubarb, sugar, water and butter. Roll top crust thin also and put on top. Dot with butter. Bake at 375°F. for 45 minutes or until browned.

Cherry Sonker

Mrs. Hester F. Dezarn — Pilot Mountain

Mrs. Dezearn has used this recipe since 1940.

1/2 cup sugar

1 1/4 cups sifted all-purpose flour

1 #2 can or 4 cups of cherries (sour)

1/4 tsp. salt

1 tsp. baking powder

3 tbsp. shortening (butter)

1/3 cup milk

Blend sugar and 1/4 cup of flour together, add juice from canned cherries and cook over direct heat, stirring constantly until thickened. Add cherries and turn into baking dish. Sprinkle with a mixture of the sugar and 1/4 cup flour. (If cherries are not sweet enough, add more sugar to taste.) Sift remaining flour three times with salt and baking powder. Cut in shortening, add milk, all at once and stir until dough stiffens slightly, then turn on floured board and knead 3 or 4 times. Roll 1/4 inch thick. Arrange strips, lattice fashion0 over cherries. Bake in hot oven ( 425°F.) 15 to 20 minutes or until crust is lightly browned. Any fruit may be used instead of cherries.

Double the recipe if you desire a larger pie.

Strawberry Sonker

Mrs. Myrtle Waugh — Mount Airy

White Plains Extension Homemakers

1 quart strawberries (fresh or frozen), sweetened

1 stick margarine

1 cup self-rising flour

1 cup sugar

3/4 cup milk

Melt margarine in 2 1/2 quart casserole dish. make batter from flour, sugar and milk. Heat sweetened fruit (this can be used with blackberries, cherries, or peaches) with enough water to cover berries until hot. Pour over batter. Bake at 375°F. for 25 minutes.

Sweet Potato Sonker

Madge Gunnell

Eldora Extension Homemakers, Aarat, NC

Place raw slices of sweet potato in sonker pan. Add white sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg and vanilla. Cover with strips of pastry, then cover pastry with white sugar and chunks of butter. Bake until done, remove from oven, break crust open and add sweet milk. Replace in oven and simmer a few minutes.

Lazy Day Sonker

Lena Mae Inman

Pilot Knob Extension Homemakers Club

1 stick margarine

1 cup sugar

1 cup self-rising flour

3/4 cup milk

Put butter in deep dish and melt in oven. Beat sugar, flour and milk to form a smooth batter and pour over melted butter, do not stir. Wash and drain fruit (peaches, blueberries, etc.) and put in batter and sprinkle with 1/2 cup sugar. Bake at 350°F. for 30 minutes or until brown on top and done. Serves 6.

Fruit Sonker

Pam White — Mount Airy

Over 1 pint fruit, put 1/2 cup honey. (If large fruit, cut into smaller pieces.)

Cream 4 tbsp. butter with 1/4 cup honey. Add:

1/2 cup whole wheat flour

1/2 cup unbleached flour

1 tsp. baking powder

1/4 tsp. salt

1/2 cup milk

Stir well. Pour batter into buttered baking dish, add fruit on top, cover with 1 cup boiling water. Bake at 350°F. until golden and bubbly. Serve with milk.

Apple Sonker

Wavy Mabry — Mount Airy

Ms. Mabry’s mother called this a “spread apple pie” and made extra biscuits at breakfast in order to have leftovers to make the sonker.

Use stewed and sweetened or canned apples. Split biscuits and alternately layer biscuits and apples, ending with apples. If served hot, spread with butter. If served cold, drip sourwood honey over top.

Blackberry Sonker

Shoals Extension Homemakers

1 1/2 quarts blackberries

1 cup brown sugar

1 cup white sugar




2 1/2 cups self-rising flour

3/4 cup shortening

cold water (enough to moisten) divided in half

Place half of blackberries in bottom of deep dish, sprinkle 1/2 cup white sugar, 1/2 cup brown sugar, dot with butter, pour 1/4 cup water over this. Place rolled out pastry over berries, place remaining berries on crust adding remaining sugars, butter and place crust on top. Bake at 350°F. until top crust is browned.

To serve, spoon out in bowls. A mixture of milk, sugar and vanilla is poured over each serving.

All recipes are reprinted courtesy of the Surry County Historical society and can be found in the 2009 reprint of the “30th Annual Sonker Festival, Sonker Recipes” cookbook. (First printing, 1980.)

To find a restaurant in Surry County that serves sonker, go to

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